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Thomas Sully

Thomas Sully was a British-born portraiture artist who specialized in highly romanticized portraits that exaggerated the elegance and idealized the subjects. Born in Horncastle, England in 1783, Sully was the youngest of nine siblings. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1792, following their acting careers to Richmond, Virginia. He attended school in New York until the death of his mother brought him home to live with his family in Richmond. From there, they relocated to South Carolina where Sully attempted to study insurance brokering unsuccessfully. He was apprenticed out to his brother-in-law, Jean Belzons (1794–1812) until they had a falling out in 1799, which resulted in an apprenticeship with Sully’s artistic brother, Lawrence in Richmond. In 1804, Thomas Sully opened his own studio in Richmond and received his first commission to paint a theater in 1806 in New York. Lawrence passed away in 1804, so Sully studied briefly with Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) in Boston, Massachusetts who encouraged him to pursue portraiture. That same year, he moved to Philadelphia and although he remained there for the rest of his life, his artwork was well-loved throughout the nation.

In 1809, he spent a year in London, studying under Benjamin West (1738-1820) and Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) as well as copying works from the old masters’ paintings. He returned to Philadelphia in 1810 and quickly became one of the most renowned portraiture artists in the East Coast. Sully began painting full-length portraits of politicians, clergymen and military heroes though his fame mostly derived from the romanticized portraits of high-class society women and sentimental scenes of idealized children. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts awarded him an honorary membership in 1812, where he remained an active supporter until 1831. In 1812, Sully also co-owned and operated a successful commercial art gallery with James S. Earle, a frame maker and restorer, for nearly thirty years. In 1837, at the height of his career, he was commissioned to create a full-length portrait of Queen Victoria which brought him greater fame and many pupils. His paintings remained in society’s favor until the 1850s, and before his death in 1872, produced a portraiture guide-book Hints to Young Painters and the Process of Portrait Painting, which was published posthumously in 1873.

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